I grew up in an insular community. It was the kind of place where black people were scarce and feminist was a bad word. People were nice and book smart. They gave to charity, read the news, and wanted the best for their children or their friends or their dogs. But, diversity wasn’t a big value, and with that insular mindset came a host of preconceived heteronormative notions that we all ate up like fried kosher bacon. For example, we knew that most girls weren’t funny – funny was reserved for boys. Girls kissing girls was only okay for providing entertainment. And, rape and other abuse did NOT happen where we lived. It happened elsewhere. Probably in public school.
We all went to college. We had no trouble getting in. For the first time, we socialized with people of color, people from different socioeconomic backgrounds, and people with the kinds of tattoos we’d always found frightening. College was our chance to alter our worldview, pinpoint our xenophobic assumptions, and counter them with real world knowledge and experience. We learned about white privilege, and dated outside our race and religion. (Or, at least, we hooked up outside of those parameters). Some of us realized we’d been sexually assaulted as younger people, we just hadn’t had the language to know so at the time. Some of us finally said we were gay. Some of us got married. Most of us graduated.
After college, I moved to New York, which is pretty heavily populated with people from my hometown, or from other likeminded communities. It’s always easy to spot each other because most of us never grew out of our overtly friendly, mildly awkward tendencies. The first thing I noticed was the familiar change in those I hadn’t seen in a while. You’re a feminist?! You had a lot of sex in college?! You’re into Phish?! (They’re all into Phish). It seemed we’d collectively learned how attractive insight and humor is in women, and that the nuclear family is just one of several options.
Our new shared understanding of the world outside of ourselves was comforting and liberating. This newly liberal community was its own entity, separate from the one we knew, and I was eager to see it up close. So, we had dinner parties and reminisced. We quoted articles from The Atlantic. We discussed gender and sexuality. It was a side of these people I hadn’t experienced before.
A few months after my move to the city, ten of us from similar upbringings sat around a table discussing gender identity – my favorite topic. These conversations were now commonplace, and I felt excited and engaged. I mentioned the struggle that people who do not identify as man or woman often endure, a statement I thought was obvious, until one guy said he had never heard of the concept before. “Not a man AND not a woman?” He asked a few more questions and quickly came to his conclusion. “That’s weird,” he said, and slumped back in his chair. Weird? Did he mean that’s interesting, or tell me more about that? How could it be weird? Didn’t we all share the same open-mindedness now?
I started to notice it more – a thick residue of ignorance from childhood. It clung just below people’s skin, and only surfaced in crowds of all heterosexual people, or when women were outnumbered. I noticed it on the person who asked the difference between gay people marrying and siblings marrying. And, on the person who defended his favorite athlete – “he didn’t rape his wife, it was just battery”. The voices were few, but they were loud, and they suddenly seemed to pop up everywhere. In my excitement over the freshly minted liberalism of so many people I once knew, I hadn’t realized that not everyone had undergone the same internal transformation. Apparently, some of us left open-mindedness and feminism back in college.
For a little while I fought back, thinking I could easily sway people.
“It’s not weird, it’s different.”
“The difference is marrying someone you’re not related to and marrying someone in your family.”
“Never place the word just in front of a word like battery.”
It didn’t help. I felt disheartened. It didn’t matter if the majority opinion agreed with me. I needed everyone to agree. I had reached the point in my adulthood where I could no longer quietly tolerate the presence of ignorance, and I didn’t understand how other people could. I stopped attending dinner parties, resentful, and avoiding the small but significant minority. I only quoted The Atlantic on Twitter. I discussed gender with different people, or just those with likeminded social views.
In the time since then, I’ve given up on my agenda to sway people. It’s exhausting, and I don’t have the stomach for it. I cherish the years most of us took to enhance our worldview. I’m proud of us. But, I’ve drawn a line. I no longer have room for the kind of ignorance that refuses to budge. I can’t overlook the closed-minded minority opinion in the room. It isn’t enough to want to expand my knowledge of other peoples experiences. I need to surround myself with those who set the same goals.
Some people think I’m limiting myself, and I owe it to others to argue against the residue – challenge old notions, welcome people into a new liberal experience. They may have a point, but I can’t see it now. I’m not here to babysit the ignorant, or hold their hands as they cross the street. My focus is my own education, and I choose that over the comfort of hometown familiarity.